Tar and

Dorothy Nelson
(Dalkey Archive)
Dear old dad likes waggling his weenie at kids in the park. Also beating up on Ma ... then telling her how much he loves her. Later, he wonders how she happened to fall down in the kitchen and give herself such a black eye.

To bring home the bacon, he sneaks into houses, especially ones inhabited by oldsters. One ancient lady wouldn't tell him where the money was; he stuck her hand in the fire until she stopped being so obdurate.

On occasion, for diversion, he mauls and rapes young women in back alleys. He professes to love them all the while. For a small fee, and in another burst of love, he strangles a guy in the IRA who has been ratting on his pals.

How does Mum react to the anti-social behavior patterns of Joe? When he slams her against the wall, as he does on occasion, she figures she deserves it because she's not been such a good wife. After the political strangulation, the two of them have a bout of quick sex on the floor of the kitchen.

And when he's off to the pub tanking up, she hugs son Ben, just turned fourteen. (The other two sons got out of the house as soon as they were able). In a fit of motherly love, she also --- gork --- kisses Ben full on the mouth.

    "You're your Mammy's little boy," she whispered in my ear. The other two [brothers] were Daddy's boys and I was Mammy's boy. I'd rather be a Mammy's boy than a fairy any day of the week to tell you the truth. She kissed me on the mouth then as if it were sealing the truth away inside two tombs so no one would know but us.

Ben says being with Mammie is like being "on one long honeymoon. The only reason we didn't get married was because he wouldn't divorce her."

Ben is not so sure the old man still likes him, so his thoughts turn to a light snack. "Does my Da want to munch me like liquorice sweets and kiss my hand like the Virgin Mary is a big queen and only the best for you? Or lick me all over like Mary and Jesus holding hands out walking."

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This slim, vicious volume set me to thinking about several previous detestables in literature, the likes of Chaucer's Pardoner, Shakespeare's Iago, Bronte's Heathcliff. Jacques Casanova, Mann's Confidence Man, Ring Lardner's countrified villains, Joseph Mitchell's various scoundrels, and, most of all, J. P. Donleavy's Sebastian Dangerfield.

What, I was wondering, sets them apart from Nelson's vicious, ugly, and --- for this reader --- vacant, depressing zoo? It may be that Nelson is neither an artful nor a subtle stylist, unlike those I have listed above. Or it may be the difference between an author who loves his creations --- no matter how grotesque --- and one who wants merely to stock up on the villainy. Ring Lardner's rubes come by their virulence due to the asphyxia of small-town life; the Pardoner turns comic in his profession of divine assistance; Felix Krull is charmingly frank about his extra-legal excursions; when he takes, Casanova usually leaves something of himself behind, if only the seeds of passion.

And The Ginger Man? He makes us laugh, he makes us cry, he pulls out the best and the worst in all of us, including himself. There's the wrenching tension between loving and hating such a selfish bastard, one who has the gall to do these scandalous things, things that we wish (on occasion) we had the gall to do.

But while sordid Joe is busy exposing himself in the park --- bitter, self-destructive to him, and the terrified children --- we can only look on and think, "Oh stop it." Sebastian Dangerfield exposes himself on the train to a carriage-full of middle-class Irish ladies and gentlemen, it becomes absent-mindedly comic, in no way purposeful, vengeful.

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I reckon it's something if a writer can sketch out a thoroughly fucked-up family system, such as Ms. Nelson has done in Tar and Feathers, showing three glum characters in search of unrelieved self-obsession, rage, destruction --- all aimed at family, the world, themselves. It may be a pregnant theme of and for the 21st Century --- but for some of us, it is not unlike viewing highly detailed color photographs of bodies sprawled on a field in Bosnia, or Rwanda. We can look at them for a while, feel terrible, grieve for the poor and the helpless, for the injustice of nationalism; but after a short time, we must turn away, look for something less meaningful.

I suppose there are many in the world as unremittingly crude and cruel as Da, but I don't know that I am all that keen on meeting any of them, even between the covers of a book. Give me Sebastian Dangerfield and his incessant, merry womanizing any day of the week.

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Speaking of rats, Niall Griffiths has created a whole nest of them in Stump (Graywolf). Darren, an obscene bossy character, is driving around Wales with Ally who eats chocolate non-stop and talks with his mouth full. Rather than look at the gorgeous scenery, they try to out-do each other in tedious rephrasings of what my Granny used to call the "f-word" in all its possible garish, dumb combinations.

The dialogue between the two of them reminds us of far too many nights that I spent years ago in Skibberreen listening to the ramblings of the ratchet-mouths who gathered in a smelly pub to jaw nonstop about their sex-lives, nattering on and on for no good reason.

Darren and Ally have been sent to Wales to do a hatchet job on a one-armed ex-alcoholic traitor to the gang by the name of Perry. The only saving grace in Stump is the title character. His recitation of what it is like to live with --- as Darren and Ally would have it --- his "stump," is real, brings a touch of empathy:

    All this stuff, it's relentlessly there, always in yer life this stooping an pickin an bendin, so much time spent doin this shit an the reson why it drives yeh mad is because yer instinct is to fight it; yer instinct is to reach out with thee arm that isn't there to facilitate these insistent necessities, these nagging fuckin necessities. And all that happens is yer empty sleeve flaps an you can almost feel yer fingers closing, almost feel the cold stoniness of the melon, say, in yer non-existent palm, but it's not fuckin there. Only in yer head is it there still or in some other place where consciousness resides an it's pointless an it's embarrassing an it can threaten to drive you away from yer own fuckin mind...

--- Mary Turner Rule


Mario Suárez
Francisco Lomelí, et al

(University of Arizona)
Not Virgil Suárez
The editors have picked twenty stories from Suárez' mid-century writings. Many tell of the doings of the folks in "El Hoyo," the poorest part of Tucson, Arizona. Since the colonia is translated as "The Hole," it is not, shall we say, the part of town where the hoity-toity come to be seen.

We have lovingly described Suárez in an earlier review but ... as I write these very words, O blush, I find that Virgil Suárez' Spared Angola: Memories from a Cuban-American Childhood has nothing whatsoever to do with Mario Suárez and
Chicano Sketches. I don't even think they are related.

Darn it, I'm embarrassed, or as Pogo would say, "replete with rue." Maybe I'm a racist, thinking that every Suárez who writes must be the same person?

Let me get out of this pickle by saying that Virgil is worth your time, if you are reading his autobiography or his poetry. He's sad and charmingly wistful and very very funny, and the story about growing up with bad teeth and his father being a "gusano" in Castro's Cuba make one laugh and cringe all at the same time. (Our review can be found here.)

Not Mario Suárez
Mario Suárez is something else again. He and the denizens of "El Hoyo" could well have sprung from the pen of William Saroyan; most of the stories found here were written around the same time and may have been influenced by The Human Comedy or The Time of Your Life.

As with Saroyan, Suárez recounts tales of barbers and bus-drivers and drunks and kids and bums and general pick-ups trying to make a living in a depression-era America.

Saroyan's folk heroes may have the hint of Armenia about them, but for both authors, there is nothing about the rank prejudice under which minorities had to live at the time. For Suárez, it is a poor but happy world.

Some of the characters are a hoot, like "Kid Zopilote." The kid wants to know why the inhabitants of El Hoyo hung that disgusting moniker on him.

His uncle explains, "It is a very funny bird. His appearance is like that of a buzzard. The damned zopilotes are as black as midnight. They have big beaks and they also have a lot of feathers on their ugly heads ... They come down to earth like giant airplanes, feeling out a landing, bouncing the earth. When they hit the earth they keep sliding forward until their speed is gone. They walk like punks walking into a bar."

    When the damned zopilotes eat, they only eat what has previously been eaten. Sometimes they almost choke and consequently they puke. But always there is another zopilote who comes up from behind and eats the puke of the first.

Neither Virgil nor
Mario Suárez
"They look like a tree. When they ease themselves on a poor tree, the tree dies. After that they eat more puke and kill a few more trees, then once again start running into the wind. They get air speed. They become airborne. Then they fly away."

Kid Zopilote is somewhat miffed by his uncle's unwelcome analysis:

    "So you mean that they call me Kid Zopilote because they think I eat puke?" asked Kid Zopilote as his eyes became narrow with anger.

    "Not necessarily, Pepe, perhaps there are some other reasons," said his uncle.

    "The guys can go to hell then..."

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Chicano Sketches is easygoing stuff. All the characters are benign, even the thieves, bums, drunkards, and other ne'er-do-wells. Any harm is comic: Pepe breaks a stick over the head of the mayor because el alcalde is going to steal his girlfriend, but his honor merely sits down and cries.

This edition of the stories of Mario Suárez, I gather, is designed for students struggling through one of those Chicano awareness classes in high school or in college, so about a quarter of the book is given over to "Notes," "Bibliography," "Discussion and Analysis," as well as "Context and Backdrop," filled with such enervating jawbreakers as these, concerning the Suárez and the "Chicano movement" in literature: his definition serves to suggest an emerging consciousness, a perception based on knowing who one is vis-à-vis a social background of general neglect... and The year 1848 is generally accepted as the point of its inception if the sociopolitical factors are taken into consideration...

If you aren't gaga about such literary strutting, stick to the stories. They are sweet.

--- Carlos Amantea
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